Is it rude to stick your tongue out…
… if you’re a Canada Goose? That’s what I wondered yesterday as I watched one of the noisy honkers on our lake.
The fluffy feathers form little puff pockets of air warmed by the birds’ bodies. But… have you ever seen a bird with feathered feet?
In the past few weeks, I’ve watched geese stand immobile for thirty minutes or more on ice and in shallow, frigid water. They seem unconcerned about freezing their feet. Turkey vultures poop on their feet to cool them off in summer. Is it possible, I wondered, that the geese are dropping little toe warmers, and I never noticed?
I reviewed hours of video featuring geese on ice. Nope. Nary a plop.
Have you ever watched a scratching squirrel? Those little paws move incredibly fast, and I swear, their under-the-armpit maneuvers mimic taking a shower. I wrote a blog post about itchy squirrels a year ago, surmising that their den was infested with fleas. This past week, quite a few creatures’ itchy behavior caught my eye: the squirrels, a juvenile bald eagle, adult and juvenile swans, and two kinds of ducks—goldeneyes and mergansers.
So, what’s with all the picking, poking, biting, and scratching?
We see swans quite often on Lake Allegan. They’re drawn to the weedy, shallow water surrounding Eagle Island, a few hundred yards from our home. Swans mate for life, and they’re social creatures. So usually, they feed in pairs—or herds or banks or bevies—of six or eight (who comes up with these collective nouns?).
So, when a solo swan floated nearby for days, I wondered if something was amiss.
A female Common Merganser floated in a posture I’d not noticed before. A male was with her, swimming broad circles around her prone body. Was she injured? I grabbed my spotting scope to find out.
I watched as she floated, nearly motionless, elongated as though playing dead man’s float.
If there’s an apt word to describe Canada geese, that’s the one. They’re always around, sometimes just a pair, more often honking in what seems like the hundreds. I tend to pay little attention to these loud-mouthed creatures.
But a few weeks ago, I woke to an eerily beautiful sight—a line of languid geese seemingly also starting their day. The group was strewn across Lake Allegan’s February ice. The air was misty…almost ethereal.
I wondered … did the birds spend their night on the ice?
Such a happy creature, I thought. Then I returned to my senses. Loons are not puppies, whose joyful exuberance might be measured in tail rotations per minute. Could the tail swish be aimed at keeping insects away? Not likely. Conditions were breezy on Farm Lake, just windy enough to keep flies and mosquitoes at bay. Surely, the loons enjoyed the same benefit of that day’s Algonquin weather. My kayaking partner and I headed for a closer look.
As we approached, the wagging continued. Six or eight shakes, then a pause, followed by another series of rapid flapping. The flag-like end of the bird’s tail seemed improbably large. I peered through the camcorder’s viewfinder and bumped up the zoom. The camera jiggled from the kayak’s unsteady movement, but the loon’s details came into view. That’s when I realized my mistake.
But not the young ones; at least not for several weeks. On a recent Algonquin paddling trip, I noticed Common Loon parents diving for fish and then surfacing to pass the goodies to their chicks. The fluffy-feathered kids appeared to be good swimmers and sometimes they disappeared momentarily under the water. So why weren’t they foraging their own food?
The answer, it turns out, is in those fluffy feathers.
Not on the lake below our home; no loons grace Lake Allegan. But on a recent paddling trip in Canada, we were treated to near-constant loon company. I’ve always understood loons to be shy, so I was not expecting to see so many of them at such close range. The loons did not turn away as we paddled nearby. Sometimes, they even approached us, stopping just a few yards from our kayaks. Apparently, these Ontario loons see a lot of paddlers. Or, they simply share in the Canadian reputation for being extra friendly.
I saw some touching loon behavior—adults feeding their young, including one moment when a parent appeared to be teaching the child a food-finding skill. I also saw some comical loon behavior known as the foot waggle. I’ll share those moments in future blog posts.
My favorite loon encounter was the evening we were treated to a loon symphony.
Read more and see the video